Transit authority announces board approves ballot measure for 2017

Transit authority announces board approves ballot measure for 2017
Posted at 6:45 PM, Jun 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-29 19:08:59-04

CINCINNATI — A ballot issue aimed at increasing funding for the region’s public transit may appear as soon as next year, the transit authority announced Wednesday.

According to Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers, the measure would go before Hamilton County voters in 2017, as a means to “increase and enhance public transportation services.”

The SORTA Board of Directors voted Wednesday to direct the agency’s staff to explore the feasibility of various ways such a measure could be presented to voters in November 2017.

Hilvers said it was too early to speculate on the exact form of ballot measure City Manager Harry Black and his staff will return, history shows some recent attempts using tax levies.

SORTA’s market research has shown some mixed feelings about tax levies as a means toward increased transit funding.

As recently as 2014, the transit authority was already polling the region about how best the bus system could secure more funds annually. As WCPO reported, in the fall of 2014, 61 percent of SORTA survey respondents in Hamilton County said they agreed that a sales tax is the best way to fund public transit improvements. At the same time, though, nearly 60 percent said they would oppose a half-cent permanent sales tax increase.

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Even removing the permanence of the tax didn’t help: Only 43 percent said they would support a 10-year half-cent sales tax.

This certainly wouldn’t be SORTA’s first try at gathering support from county taxpayers.

In 2002, Hamilton Countyvoters soundly rejected a plan that would have used a half-cent sales tax to expand Metro bus service and build out light rail transit from Downtown to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron.

Proponents at the time attributed the measure’s defeat to the then-recent approval of an identical sales tax to build Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

Perhaps it's this track record with the county's voters that caused the board to approve the ballot measure for next year, instead of this coming fall.

It's an easy bet to place that voter turnout during this year's election will outpace the following year's, but Hilvers speculated that the board chose 2017 to give themselves adequate time to plot the right course.

"I think it was that they weren't quite ready yet, still a lot more research and planning to be done," she said.

And that will be one of Silvers' and the rest of the SORTA's staff primary goals — in addition to launching the streetcar this September — over the next year.

Jason Dunn, SORTA board chairman, said he's optimitic over what he sees as an increasing demand for multi-modal travel, particularly as young professionals flock back to cities’ urban neighborhoods.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Dunn said in a statement Wednesday. “This is bigger than politics; we are talking about quality of life. We have an urgent need to ensure our system’s sustainability and to improve public transit access to jobs.

“A robust transit system will make our region more competitive, particularly in attracting millennials,” he said.

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A recent University of Cincinnati Economics Center study found that more than 75,000 jobs in Cincinnati were not accessible by Metro. Additionally, while more than 70 percent of all Hamilton County businesses are within a quarter-mile of a Metro route, Metro may not be providing adequate levels of service to access some of those jobs, the study found.

Dunn also pointed to peer cities — most likely referring to Kansas City and Cleveland, both of which have invested in recent transit expansions — as signs of a growing trend.

“Our peer cities get it,” he said.